Is it “jif” or “ghif”? Well, it’s both.

GIFs, they’re everywhere these days: the new staple of social media communication. They are the animated images you see scattered liberally throughout blog posts, thinkpieces and listicles alike. Everyone has seen an old person respond to a GIF the same way we did to the moving photographs in the Daily Prophet.

“Wow! How’d they do it?”

The debate over how “GIF” is pronounced has, unsurprisingly, become almost as ubiquitous as the thing that caused it. Is it “ghif” or “jif”? Whenever I see it discussed, the following arguments tend to come up:

  • “Any ‘G’ preceding an ‘I’ is soft.”
  • “Well, the ‘G’ in ‘gift’ is hard.”
  • “‘G’ is pronounced ‘jhee’.”
  • “It stands for ‘graphics’, not ‘jraphics’.”
  • More recently, “The creator of the term says it’s pronounced ‘jif’.”
  • Inevitably, and appropriately, followed by:

The question has been the cause of many a restless night. But why are we finding it so difficult to come to an agreement? Why is it so frustrating? Why is it such a fertile source of dispute?

The word GIF, as far as I can tell, is a rare instance of a widely-used term emerging spontaneously from the primordial linguistic soup, with no precedent as to how it is pronounced. It comes not from Greek, nor Latin, nor Old Germanic, but from a computer science acronym. Its etymological history is brief: it stands for “Graphics Interchange Format”. And we aren’t used to having no history to turn to for an answer.

We have to dig deeper, then —all the way to the last time words absent of etymological origin were popping up. Back when we were cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers without the means of debating language, why did they start making words up?

The answer is exactly what you think it is.

Signs and symptoms

At the risk of stating the obvious, a language is a system of signs (signifier+signified meaning pairs) by which a person may transmit an idea to another person. As in a hieroglyphic system, each signifier — for example, the word “cat” — represents the concept of something being referenced: the signified, namely, an actual cat. The innovation of language allowed early humans to exchange information without either sender or receiver having the relevant items on hand to demonstrate what they mean.

Let’s put that in context. Say, you’re a prehistoric person, and your brother is dying of some mysterious disease. The nearest specialist lives in the neighbouring town, and you are unable to carry him all the way there. How would you explain your brother’s predicament to the them?

With luck, the both of you would have an agreed-upon word for whatever is ravaging your poor brother. You tell the doctor so, and without much further ado, they pack up a few herbs that you then take to cure him.

So, how did ancient humans decide what vocal sounds would signify a thing? Well, they agreed upon it. There was no room for sentimentality or snobbery: you’re too busy trying to explain to the doctor that a disease is killing your brother to advocate using your own esoteric term for it. Which words ultimately became “correct” depended on their utility: which ones were most likely to be understood.

When “medium” becomes rare

Move forward a few millennia, and we anglophones find ourselves in a linguistic environment that’s full of loanwords, orphaned words, compound words of mixed origin, and people with a baffling obsession with conventions.

Consider the word “medium” (since that’s where we are). It has multiple meanings, all of them denoting a position in between two things. Based on its origins in Latin, the plural form of “medium” should be “media”.

However, the word “media” has gained its own specific usage, referring to “the main means of mass communication (television, radio, and newspapers) regarded collectively” (source: Dictionary.com). This sense of the word “media” has so far superseded every other sense, in terms of frequency of usage, that it is now widely taken to have the latter definition.

Now, to avoid confusion, whenever we mean “medium” in any other sense, we tend to apply the standard English language convention when pluralising it: by appending an “s” at the end. When a piece of fiction has been published in both book and film format, we tend to say it has been published in two mediums (some do use “media” in this case, but things can get messy when you’re holding a discussion in which both senses of the word “media” are pertinent).

What I’m getting at is this: language is, and has always been, about utility, and never about following rules. It’s always been about sharing, and being understood.

Don’t look a GIF horse in the mouth

Armed with this precedent, let’s get back to our GIF debate. How is “GIF” pronounced? Precedent tells us the answer would be, very simply, whichever one more people understand.

But here’s the conundrum: both are equally well-understood. It doesn’t matter whether you say “look at this ghif” or “look at this jif”: the other person gets your meaning quickly (or should I say, in a jiffy), and responds accordingly.

It’s not like this is anything new. We don’t make a big deal about it when, in the middle of a conversation, we realise that when referring to the historic era, some say “REN-uh-zauns” and others, “ruh-NAY-sauns”. We agree, and accept, that people in different places learn to say it differently — and that it’s something to be celebrated, even. And then we proceed with the riveting discussion on Leonardo da Vinci’s sexual orientation because that’s so much more important than linguistic snobbery.

None of the arguments I mentioned at the start of the essay are sufficient to justify either “ghif” or ”jif” being The Incontestably Correct Way to pronounce it. There isn’t one. All of the arguments, however, are perfectly valid reasons as to why a person might pronounce it either way. So pronounce “GIF” however you like, and let it continue to facilitate the effortless exchange of frog memes.

In a day and age where the internet has rendered prescriptivism all but futile, couldn’t we accept that both “ghif” and “jif” are valid, practically and sociolinguistically? That is, unless you enjoy the strife: don’t let me ruin your fun.

Personally, I am pleased to take the happy medium.

Disclaimer: I’m not a linguist, just a media student.